While we were in Hanoi, we knew we had to take the opportunity to shoot east to Halong Bay and jump on a Junk Boat cruise. Junk boats are a popular tour in Halong Bay, as that’s really the only way you can see it, so there are many options to choose from, obviously with a huge range in price. We ended up on an IndoChina Junk boat, more out of availability, but left with a good feeling about how they run their business. Throughout the trip our guide, Hung, explained to us reasons why we go to certain places, reasons why we visit certain villages, and helped us understand the good they are trying to do for the tourism industry in Halong Bay.
Halong Bay is very beautiful. Monolithic islands of limestone dot the water in every direction to what seems like infinity. The water is calm and that’s basically it. That’s the scene for the few days on the junk boat, and outside of the extensively planned meals and some kayaking mixed in, you’re left to entertain yourself staring into the bay (or in the evening- drink heavily after you’ve thrown in the towel on squid fishing). It’s a nice respite from Hanoi, that’s for sure.
Speaking in tourism terms, Halong Bay can we divided into three sections: Ha Long Bay Center, Lan Ha Bay near Cat Ba Island, and Bai Tu Long Bay. Most junk boat tours tour through Halong Bay Center but IndoChina Junk has managed to wiggle their way into the less trafficked area of Bai Tu Long Bay to offer their clients a much calmer Halong Bay experience. They developed a program called “For a Green Halong Bay” which is supported by the government and the residents of Halong Bay. It is a two part project that focuses on removal and treatment of waste as well as mangrove reforestation in Bai Tu Long Bay and building new cultural houses and schools in fishing villages. Tourism is slowly taking its toll on Halong Bay. Mangroves have been cleared to make way for all the tourist boats and pollution is on the rise among other things. Indochina Junk is trying to reverse it’s impact by actively putting forth energy and constructive processes into the places they visit with their tours.
Vung Vieng fishing village is one such example. This fishing village is located in a pocket of limestone islands, sheltering the residents from strong winds and choppy water. We noticed the second we arrived that it was so much warmer inside their watery home. Hung told us that in the beginning the residents of the village did not like tourists. Indochina Junk ended up striking a deal with the residents. They would help clean up their waters (they were very polluted from day to day activity), they would build a new floating school, and they would exchange the foam floats that hold up their floating houses for plastic ones that would be a long term sustainable solution for them and the environment in which they live.
This junk boat operator also decided to buy a cave, Thien Canh Son cave, that is. Located in a small island in Bai Tu Long Bay, it is only for visitors of Indochina Junk. This is where they hold the final dinner of the cruise. Now, getting rights to an island was no easy task. There were people living their for gosh sakes. They ended up striking another deal by providing these cave dwellers with alternative lodging.
They also now run a kayak shop on the island that houses Thien Canh Son cave, that gives the clients of Indochina Junk a chance to paddle around the islands themselves.
An optional, additional night to add onto your Halong Bay tour involves a village homestay on the mainland in Yen Duc Village. The name of this village may sound familiar as it provided us with a great place to ride our bikes. But it was another strategic decision for Indochina Junk. After scouting several villages for a homestay, Yen Duc Village was the winner. Recognized as a national relic in 1993, the village retains traditional agricultural features and a offers a peaceful peek into rural Vietnamese life. When we asked Huong, our guide, what the village people thought of its new place in tourism, she basically said the same thing as the residents of the fishing village. It was a change indeed. At first unwelcome, but with the cleanliness and beautification of the village brought about by the new relationship as well as the creation of new jobs for the villagers, the locals will give you a nice hearty wave and hello upon seeing a foreign face.
When we were kayaking one day there was a lonely bottle floating in the water that Hung went over to snag for the trash. Now, I’m not sure if everything Indochina junk does is perfect, as nothing is, and I’m sure they’ve had their bumps along the way, but it’s clear that they’re taking their effect on the environment seriously and doing their part in retaining the natural beauty of Halong Bay.